This Is How Obama ‘Founding Father’ Rev. Wright, His Church & Black Liberation Theology Shaped the President’s Worldview
Editor’s Note: This week, the DVD of the movie “2016″ will be released. A key premise of the film is that Barack Obama has his own set of five “founding fathers” — five key people who shaped his worldview. This week, TheBlaze will examine one of those individuals each day. Today, the focus will be on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the president’s former pastor.
Most Americans know the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his fiery sermons that were incessantly played by media during the 2008 campaign. You may recall his quotes about God damning America and his accusation that the U.S. government used HIV “as a means of genocide against people of color.” But the majority of Americans likely don’t know much about Wright’s personal background and — considering the media narrative and his refusal to speak with reporters — learning about his life and influences is somewhat challenging.
Some might contend that there’s no need to study Wright further — that the intense and seemingly anti-American rhetoric that was observed on television sets across America tells us all we need to know about one of the nation’s most controversial pastors. However, considering the elevated level of influence Wright had in President Barack Obama’s life, understanding the figure helps to shed further light on the president’s personal beliefs and ideals.
If one wants a base understanding about who Wright is, there’s always the Trinity United Church of Christ web site, however the resources gives very little when it comes to the grand picture that Wright’s life paints. The 71-year-old faith leader retired in early 2008 after a 36-year career at the church and it appears he retains very little attachment to the house of worship he once called home.
The church’s official biography of Wright, which remains published on the site, is overwhelming short, focusing mainly on a cursory look at the faith leader’s educational background, his arrival at the church and the monumental growth in attendees that occurred under his leadership. As Trinity notes, the church grew from 87 members in March 1972 when he arrived to over 6,000 before he left.
WRIGHT’S EARLY LIFE
The first key to understanding Wright is knowing a bit about his background, education and early years. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 22, 1941 to the Rev. Jeremiah Alvesta Wright, a faith leader, and Mary Elizabeth Henderson, a schoolteacher. Wright was subsequently raised in Germantown, a historic neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Both of his parents were well-known and revered in the community. His father, for whom he was named, was pastor at Grace Baptist Church, from 1938 until 1980, Biography.com reports. Wright Sr.’s leadership at the church is documented on its web site. As for Henderson, Wright’s mother, she was also actively involved in her husband’s house of worship; both of his parents were highly-educated as well.
In addition to Wright’s father, who earned a bachelor’s degree in divinity from Virginia Union University, his mother held a doctorate; she was also known for breaking barriers in Germantown, as she was the first African American to teach at Germantown High and Philadelphia High School for Girls (she also became the latter school’s first black vice-principal).
Considering this background and the academic statue of his parents, it’s no surprise that Wright has numerous degrees of his own. In 1959, the then-18-year-old graduated from Central High School, an institution that was considered among the best in the area. In a 2008 article on Newsmax.com, Ronald Kessler described Wright’s high school experience in detail:
Rather than attend the more racially mixed Germantown High School at 40 East High St., Wright traveled a few miles to the elite Central High School at 1700 West Olney Ave., graduating in 1959. Opened in 1838, Central High has a distinguished past and admits only highly-qualified applicants who are privileged to attend from all over the city. It is comparable to the Bronx High School of Science and Boston Latin School, both public schools known for academic excellence.
When Wright attended Central High, the student body was 90 percent white, according to students who attended around the same time. At least three-quarters of the students were Jewish. Former students of the period say racial tension did not exist.
According to Newsmax, among other sources, Central High School’s yearbook described Wright more-than-favorably, calling him “kind” and “one of the most congenial members of the [211th class].” The book also said that Wright served as a model that younger classmates could emulate. Next to an image of the preacher was purportedly text showing that he was active in extra-curricular activities. Among them: band, orchestra and junior varsity football.
Clearly, Wright lived a middle class — and some might argue, considering his educational opportunities at the time — an upper-middle class lifestyle as a young person. His parents were accomplished and the opportunities he had helped craft his worldview and catapult him to theological success.
WRIGHT’S HIGHER EDUCATION EXPERIENCES
Wright’s higher education years were robust and wide-reaching. While he started out at Virginia Union University, where he attended for three and a half years, he ended up leaving school and joining the U.S. Marine Corps. Then, according to his Trinity biography, he transferred into the Navy, where he served as a cardiopulmonary technician.
Wright’s motivation to serve in the armed forces might surprise some who know little about his background. The faith leader was apparently inspired by John F. Kennedy’s challenge to get Americans to engage in public service, so he decided to leave school behind to join the Armed Forces. Biography.com has more:
After two years of service, Wright transferred to the U.S. Navy and entered the Corpsman School at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. After graduating valedictorian, Wright was trained as a cardiopulmonary technician at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, graduating salutatorian.
Wright was assigned as part of the medical team charged with caring for U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. Indeed, Wright was photographed caring for Johnson after his 1966 surgery. The White House awarded Wright three letters of commendation before he left the position in 1967.
After his six-year military career came to a close, he continued his education at Howard University, where he obtained an undergraduate degree and a subsequent master’s degree. Later, he completed his second master’s at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a doctorate at the United Theological Seminary. At this latter school, he studied under Dr. Samuel DeWit Proctor, a civil rights icon and a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.
Wright is married to Ramah Reed Wright and he has five children — four daughters and one son.
TRINITY’S THEOLOGY: THE BASIS OF WRIGHT’S VIEWS
It was 1972 when Wright first arrived at Trinity United. As previously stated, during his tenure, he grew the church from fewer than 100 people to thousands. Under his leadership, the church adopted the following motto, ”Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.”
While the phrase was used by his predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Reuben Sheares, it wasn’t until Wright took over that it became an official church proclamation (Trinity has even crafted a class for members named for the motto).
Perhaps understanding Trinity’s history would help individuals better see who Wright is — both as a man and a faith leader. The church was founded in 1961 by the Rev. Dr. Kenneth B. Smith, during a time in which the United States was very much divided on racial grounds. It is with this context that the house of worship’s focus on the African American community took form — a focus that continues even today.
Trinity’s own historical account of its founding acknowledges this, as the church maintains that it has its “roots in the Black religious experience.” Here’s the full historical paragraph that is present on the church’s web site, along with a timeline that showcases each leader, including Wright, that has guided the house of worship’s path:
We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian… Our roots in the Black religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting and permanent. We are an African people, and remain “true to our native land,” the mother continent, the cradle of civilization. God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community.
Under this portion of the church’s web site, there is a link for visitors who wish to understand Trinity’s adherence to “the Black Value System.” Citing past discrimination, the document is said to be “an instrument of Black self-determination” that can help African Americans on a path to personal prosperity. The elements are considered “black ethics” that must be taught, according to the church, wherever “blacks are gathered.”
The Black Value System consists of the following concepts (in this order): commitment to God, commitment to the black community, commitment to the black family, dedication to the pursuit of education, dedication to the pursuit of excellence, commitment to self-discipline and self-respect and disavowal of the pursuit of “middleclassness.”
While much of the code focuses upon hard work, dedication and a pursuit to strengthen the black family, other portions are certainly controversial. Some of the more debated elements present with this code can be found below:
- “The God of our weary years” will give us the strength to give up prayerful passivism and become Black Christian Activists, soldiers for Black freedom and the dignity of all humankind. [...]
- The Black family circle must generate strength, stability and love, despite the uncertainty of externals, because these characteristics are required if the developing person is to withstand warping by our racist competitive society. Those Blacks who are blessed with membership in a strong family unit must reach out and expand that blessing to the less fortunate. [...]
- Classic methodology on control of captives teaches that captors must be able to identify the “talented tenth” of those subjugated, especially those who show promise of providing the kind of leadership that might threaten the captor’s control.
It is this latter point about classic methodology that fell under the “disavowal of the pursuit of ‘middleclassness’” portion of the code. Unlike other sections of the document, this claim — that captors would target the smartest among those held captive — was expounded upon in detail.
According to the Trinity web site, these individuals (the “talented tenth”) would be separated from the other captives. After this separation takes form, the captors would apparently engage in the following mechanisms (these are shared word-for-word from the Trinity United web site):
- Killing them off directly, and/or fostering a social system that encourages them to kill off one another.
- Placing them in concentration camps, and/or structuring an economic environment that induces captive youth to fill the jails and prisons.
- Seducing them into a socioeconomic class system which, while training them to earn more dollars, hypnotizes them into believing they are better than others and teaches them to think in terms of “we” and “they” instead of “us.”
- So, while it is permissible to chase “middleclassness” with all our might, we must avoid the third separation method – the psychological entrapment of Black “middleclassness.” If we avoid this snare, we will also diminish our “voluntary” contributions to methods A and B. And more importantly, Black people no longer will be deprived of their birthright: the leadership, resourcefulness and example of their own talented persons.
These statements are clearly controversial and they showcase the extent to which ethnicity and theology have a tradition of being merged at Trinity United. Unlike more traditional Christian churches that merely focus upon the Bible for divine inspiration, the racial elements inherent at Trinity add a fascinating dynamic into the mix — one that has often been observed in Wright’s contentious sermons about a variety of social and political issues.
WRIGHT’S EMBRACE OF BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY
The aforementioned viewpoints comprise a controversial ideology — and religious creed — known as “black liberation theology.” The basis for this ethnic systematic view is on “liberation theology,” which Encyclopedia.com defines as a belief system that “stresses the interrelatedness of differing structures of oppression and domination.”
More specifically, someone who embraces liberation theology would believe it necessary to liberate people (i.e. the captives) from “political, economic, social, racial, ethnic, and sexual” constraints. Freeing people from oppression becomes paramount. Encyclopedia.com continues with more on this dynamic and how it pertains to the Christian church:
Each liberation theology, whether black, feminist, or Latin American, is characterized by its distinctive viewpoint, but what they all share is a commitment to social justice. To some extent, all liberation theologies are situated in contemporary political struggles and movements (such as different human rights movements against Latin American dictatorships, the U.S. civil rights movement, and feminist movements in different countries and regions). Liberation theologians usually refer to this as praxis, not only as their aim or objective, but also as their point of departure.
Liberation theology stems from the conviction that giving priority to the poor and the oppressed in theology and in the church, and the concrete defense of their rights in different societies, is a central, if not the most central, element of the Christian faith. Christian liberation theologies aim their critical analysis not only at society but at the church and theology as well in order to judge to what extent they are accomplices in maintaining structures of domination.
Wright, his church and others like him believe that this is what is needed — this liberation — for members of the African American community. Interestingly, this is the central ideal governing not only Wright’s church, but the Nation of Islam, another controversial faith group that is led by the Minister Louis Farrakhan (TheBlaze has covered numerous examples of Farrakhan speaking about these very subjects). For these groups, helping those struggling in a system they see, as Trinity’s web site notes, as a captor versus captive scenario, is paramount.
Black liberation theology first emerged in America on July 31, 1966. It was on this day that 51 black pastors took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, pushing for more overt efforts to halt racism, NPR reports. The group, which made the same demands as the black power movement, based its views upon the Bible, hence merging social, theological and ethnic ideals (here’s one of the controversial proclamations the group, called the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, released).
In its explanation of black liberation theology, back in 2008, NPR spoke with experts who attempted to frame the paradigm. Anthony Pinn, a religious studies professor at Rice University, told the outlet that, while black liberation pastors like Wright sound angry, the theology doesn’t call for violence. Instead, Pinn said that constructive, peaceful means (such as those embraced on the Trinity web site) would be sought out.
“Folks, including myself, may be taken aback by the inflammatory nature of the rhetoric, but I don’t think very many of us would deny that there is a fundamental truth: Racism is a problem in the United States,” he told NPR.
Dwight Hopkins, a professor who instructs at University of Chicago Divinity School — the same university where Wright received a master’s degree — explained that black liberation theology often depicts Jesus Christ has a “brown-skinned revolutionary.” Because Jesus Christ talked about helping the poor and bring liberation for those who find themselves oppressed, Hopkins said that the ideology is Biblically-rooted.
Interestingly, NPR notes that the professor was in the front-row when Wright delivered his unforgettable sermon in 2003 about God not blessing and, instead, damning America. ”No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people,” Wright famously proclaimed. Rather than speak against these words, Hopkins said that Wright was using a Biblical word when he said “damn” and that it has meaning in Hebrew that helps put the reverend’s words into more rational perspective.
“It means a sacred condemnation by God to a wayward nation who has strayed from issues of justice, strayed from issues of peace, strayed from issues of reconciliation,” Hopkins told the outlet.
In a separate interview with Beliefnet, Hopkins called black liberation theology “a theology of love.” He also shared explicit details regarding where, in the Bible, he finds the belief system to be rooted. He said:
“Three passages come to mind: [The first is] Luke 4:18. This is the passage where Jesus gives his first public statement on what his mission is on earth, that is to say, why has he come down to earth, why has God revealed God’s self in Jesus, the man on earth.
And that mission is very clear. It’s to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to help–to liberate, you know, those who are imprisoned, to support–you know, support the–justice for the oppressed. It’s very clear. Black liberation theology, biblically speaking, is based on that.
The second passage is Matthew 25:31 and following. From the perspective of black liberation theology, or black theology liberation, they mean the same for me–that’s the only passage where Jesus gives criteria to enter Heaven. [...]
And the third is John 3:16, “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son.” The point there is that God loved the whole world, not just internal healing, but the whole world. The whole world includes politics, economics, culture, international affairs, all of that. God loves all of God’s creation. So, black theology liberation doesn’t believe that it should be a little separate island, a monastery, but that it should go out into all of the world that God loves.”
After furor broke out during the 2008 campaign over Wright’s views on race and politics — and over the presence of these opinions on Trinity’s web site, the church prepared a list of the preacher’s talking points. In an effort to respond to critics, Wright attempted to frame Trinity’s views on a plethora of matters pertaining to race and theology (these talking points were published here).
“We [African Americans] were always seen as objects. When we started defining ourselves, it scared those who try to control others by naming them and defining them for them; Oppressors do not like “others” defining themselves,” Wright said in these published points, going on to say that this does not mean that his church views African Americans as better than any other group of persons.
“To have a church whose theological perspective starts from the vantage point of Black liberation theology being its center, is not to say that African or African American people are superior to any one else,” he added.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that, unlike other Christian churches, the “about us” page on the Trinity web site fails to mention the words “Jesus,” “son,” “sin” or “savior” — all central tenets of the Christian faith and experience. While Jesus is acknowledged on the “black value system” page, the main thrust of the church’s mission appears to be rooted more in liberation theology than it does Biblical sentiment — at least based on an analysis of the “about us” page.
IMPACT OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY ON WRIGHT’S VIEWS
Supporters of Wright note his passion and his efforts to help the poor and those in need. According to Biography.com, he has created 70 ministries that serve populations at risk, including prisoners, victims of domestic violence, the poor and numerous others. Considering these elements, Wright has been recognized for his societal contributions.
There’s no doubt that Wright, who has also penned four books, among many populations and in various scenarios, has become highly-decorated. According to a biography posted by The History Makers, he has won three honorary doctorates and three presidential commendations. In 1993, he was also added to Ebony Magazine’s top 15 preacher list — yet another accomplishment.
That being said, as noted, Wright has become more noticed for his controversial comments and fiery sermons — many of which are rooted in black liberation theology. Among his most bizarre — and inflammatory — comments is the insinuation that the U.S. government purposely spread HIV to kill off African Americans.
“The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied,” Wright once said.
The Seattle Times continues with more:
In a 2003 sermon, Wright said blacks should condemn the United States. “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”
Wright also once said Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black man trying to hail a cab in America or to be called a racial slur, said rich whites control the country and has spoken of the “U.S. of KKK-A.”
There were also Wright’s well-known comments about the U.S. following the September 11, 2001 attacks that also came to light during the 2008 campaign.
“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye,” he said. “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
Considering the Black Value System posted on Trinity’s web site, one could contend that these comments are in line with both the church’s view and black liberation theology. While Obama claims he didn’t hear such words during his 20 years at the church, this seems highly unlikely, especially considering the fervency and frequency with which these comments were delivered.
JEREMIAH WRIGHT AS ONE OF OBAMA’S MENTORS
Considering all of the aforementioned elements, one can better understand Wright’s worldview and theology. It’s no surprise that television talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who attended the church from 1984 until 1986 and again sporadically in the 1990s, ended up leaving. In a 2008 report by The Daily Beast, sources claimed that Winfrey was never comfortable with Wright’s tone.
The popular host was apparently aware of the fact that an association with Wright could hurt her image. While she purportedly wasn’t surprised by his messaging, as she had been exposed to similar pastors and churches in the past, she eventually became weary of churches that focused upon negative messaging, one source close to her claimed. Considering Winfey’s alleged worries, one wonders why Obama, who was growing in his stature, didn’t seem to entertain the same fears.
But even Wright knew, as early as 2007, that Obama might have to separate himself from the faith leader. As noted by CNN, in a 2007 interview with the Times, he predicted that Obama would decry him eventually — something that happened, though reluctantly on the part of the president, just one year later.
“If Barack gets past the primary, he might have to publicly distance himself from me,” he said in April 2007. “I said it to Barack personally, and he said, ‘Yeah, that might have to happen.’ ”
Even more fascinating than this prediction are Obama’s personal reasons for attending Trinity in the first place. In the same aforestated Daily Beast piece, another source told the outlet that it was unfair to compare Obama’s decision to stay at Wright’s church with Oprah’s choice to leave. This individual, a campaign adviser, said that Obama initially attended during a time in which he “was in search of his identity as an African American” and “an African-American man.”
This particular person also stressed the notion that Wright was able to help Obama form his views on ethnicity and his place in America. Considering what we’ve studied about Wright and Trinity and their take on these issues, if true, this is telling.
“Reverend Wright and other male members of the church were instrumental in helping him understand the black experience in America,” the source said, claiming that Winfrey wasn’t attending for the same reasons.
The notion that Obama’s attachment to the church was more rooted in finding his ethnic roots is noteworthy. In an interview with journalist Edward Klein last year, Wright told “The Amateur” author that church was not of interest to the Obama family.
“Church is not their thing. It was never their thing,” Wright says of Barack and Michelle Obama. “She was not the kind of black woman whose momma made her go to church, made her go to Sunday school…so the church was not an integral part of their lives before they got married — after they got married.”
After Wright made these comments, Klein said, “But the church was an integral part of his politics…because he needed that base.” Wright agreed with this statement, at one point saying “correct.”
Whether Obama was attending the church for reasons predicated upon a thirst to find personal identity or whether he was doing so for political gain (or both), his continued presence at Trinity affirmed a willingness to be associated with the themes coming from the pulpit. Considering his longstanding attendance at Wright’s church, denying this sentiment is difficult. Also, considering his closeness with the reverend, it is highly unlikely that Obama was in staunch disagreement with the aforementioned ideals.
As Biography.com notes, Obama attended the church starting in 1988. While he was only visiting at that point, he joined Trinity in 1992, the same year (October) in which he and Michelle were married. As is well-known at this juncture, Wright married the two and subsequently baptized their two daughters — again showing the level of devotion, even if only for purposes outside of the theological realm, that the family had to Wright and the church.
But the relationship went well beyond marrying and baptizing, two very intimate and life-altering actions that Wright was a part of. After all, Obama was close to the faith leader from the period after attending law school until the 2008 campaign. In the past, he likened Wright to an “old uncle” who sometimes says debatable things. As CNN has noted, Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” was even named after one of the pastor’s past sermons.
“I’m not plugging the book, but the title of it, ‘The Audacity of Hope.’ Some people have noticed that I actually used that line in the speech that I gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention,” Obama told a Pennsylvania crowd at a political event in November 2006. “But I tell you what: I’m confessing to all of you here today — it’s a big crowd, 2,000 people — I’m confessing in front of the TV cameras: I actually stole this line from my pastor, Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.”
OBAMA’S OFFICIAL SEPARATION FROM WRIGHT
Despite Wright’s prediction that Obama would need to separate, it took quite some time for the official — and much publicized split — to take place. In March 2008, at the height of controversy surrounding the president’s attachment to Trinity and Wright, Obama initially stepped out in media and defended Wright.
“As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me he contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years,” Obama said. “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”
But just one month later, Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club forced Obama to separate himself from the preacher he so fervently revered. TIME has a description of how Wright’s deal-breaking dialogue unfolded:
In front of a cheering crowd of supporters that included a whistling Cornel West, he gave into temptation and lustily went after his critics. As soon as the questions began, Wright transformed into a defiant, derisive figure, snapping one-liners at the unfortunate moderator tasked with reading the questions and stepping back with a grin on his face after each one, clearly enjoying himself.
Could he explain the context behind the sermon he gave after September 11, 2001? “Have you heard the whole sermon? No? That nullifies that question.” How does he respond to critics who charge that he is unpatriotic? ”How many years did Cheney serve?” Does the fact that Obama says he never heard Wright’s most controversial sermons mean he’s not much of a churchgoer? “He goes to church as much as you do. What did your pastor preach on last week?”
It continued through a defense of Louis Farrakhan and Wright’s insistence that the U.S. government may have introduced AIDS into the black community.
Naturally, these words led to the epic separation between the two parties — one that Obama still maintains today. Obama found himself, just one month after refusing to decry Wright, saying that he “wouldn’t have been comfortable” maintaining his Trinity membership if Wright wasn’t retiring. Obama also said he was “outraged” by Wright’s National Press club comments and that he was “saddened by the spectacle,” CNN reported at the time.
“I have been a member of Trinity Church since 1992. I have known Rev. Wright for almost 20 years,” Obama said during a special news conference to address the issue. “The person I saw yesterday is not the person I met 20 years ago.”
While the separation eventually took form, decades of an intense relationship causes one to wonder just how untouched Obama’s ideological constructs were by the pastor — and the church’s — worldview.
TheBlaze reached out to Wright numerous times for comment and all requests were not returned.
Carousel image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.
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